Several West Side residents have recently began receiving instruction through a new program designed to recruit teachers from within the very communities they may one day teach in.

The Grow Your Own Illinois program is a community-based teacher preparation program addressing the growing problem of retaining high-quality teachers in low-income communities.

The program looks to recognize and train budding teachers within lower-income communities throughout the state and in Chicago, including the West Side.

“Many of the teachers who are at many schools in high-risk communities see the schools as at pit stop until they become employed in a more favorable area,” said Madeline Talbott, executive director of ACORN, one of the sponsors of the program. “This leads to an exceedingly high turnover rate. We want to recognize those teachers that really want to teach their children in their communities. That’s what the program hopes to accomplish.”

Talbott and other program supporters recognize that it won’t be an easy task, given the concern prospects have about safety at high-risk schools, among others concerns.

“Sure there are many issues that would be facing the teachers,” said Talbott. “Their principal will be looking over his shoulder on a daily basis, the current surge in the cost of living on the West Side could force many people out, meaning that the program may not even help those it is intended to help. However, we are exceedingly optimistic that these are issues that can be overcome in time.”

GYO Illinois is part of a national movement to recruit new teachers. Similar efforts are ongoing in school districts in numerous states including, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Texas, Missouri and North and South Carolina.

In Illinois, community groups who work with low-income neighborhood schools have parented with GYO in teacher recruitment.

The GYO said it is looking for candidates, including para-professionals, volunteer parents or educated individuals who want to receive the training necessary to become teachers. The candidates are assessed via testing and are placed in classes to obtain their teaching certification.

Classes take place at the West Side Technical Institute, at 2800 S. Western, an affiliate institution of Daley College. The program offers classes during the spring and fall.

The GYO Illinois program has set a goal of recruiting 1,000 teachers to low-income schools in the next 10 years.

The program has received support from Illinois legislators, including Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Senate President Emil Jones (D-14th District).

The state legislature approved a $1.5 million grant in 2005 for Grow Your Own Illinois, which is now established in 10 Illinois communities. The Illinois State Board of Education requested $3 million for first-year implementation funding for the program.

The program has recruited teacher candidates from the West and South Sides.

Connie Henry, a lifelong Austin resident heard about the program from her church, Ambassadors for Christ.

Henry, who has been taking classes this spring, said she has spent 20 years working at mostly dead-end jobs. She said she wanted to try something new, and find a job that would give her security and flexibility.

“I was tired of the same dead-end jobs, and I wanted something that would let me give back to the community,” said Henry, who has two children and two grandchildren.

Henry said she and others in her class felt intimidated because of the various levels of education from the participants. She said, though, that the instructors treated everyone the same, and they went the extra mile to help students individually.

“They really go all out to work with you and help you where you need to improve,” she said.

Henry currently is working for H&R Block. She said she’ll be out of work after the tax season and will try to find work until her GYO classes resume in the fall. She said of the things she likes the most about the program is that it’s free.

GYO Illinois grew out of the Chicago Learning Campaign, a community coalition organized by ACORN to improve public schools.

Coalition members include: ACORN, TARGET Area Development Corporation on the city’s South Side, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization from the South Side, Logan Square Neighborhood Association on the North West Side and the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP).

For more information, contact Anne Hallett, director of Grow Your Own Illinois, at 773/939-7488 ext.125, email at annehallett